Writer Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) had read more than enough of the critical adulation accorded to James Fenimore Cooper, one of America's most revered early novelists (including The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans). Accordingly, in 1895, he published his review of Cooper's works. Listening to the national news this morning, hearing about politicians' maneuvers and the confusions some are having about the mysterious connection between cause and effect, and about the difference between a law and a bill and such, I was reminded of that review. I found it and reread it, and here is the passage that had come to mind.
If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have
worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more
plausibly. Cooper's proudest creations in the way of "situations"
suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer's protecting
gift. Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw
anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass
eye, darkly. Of course a man who cannot see the commonest little
every-day matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he
is constructing a "situation."
(Anyone in Washington, DC remember this passage? Apparently not.)
Twain then goes on to give an example of such a disadvantage:
…The ark [a houseboat that is about to be attacked] is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety
feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly
from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along
under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It
will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take
the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what
did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess,
and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore,
I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of
quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched
the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got
his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he
judge, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is
actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in he stern
of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly.
He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet
long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the
construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.
There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has
passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what
the five did — you would not be able to reason it out for
yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern
of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still
further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a
good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in
the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat
— for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the
difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in
front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is
really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill,
because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of
fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of
Cooper's inadequacy as observer.
Do treat yourself to the whole essay. It's been making me laugh – loudly! – since I was in high school.